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California’s carbon offset program dedicated to preserving carbon-capturing forests to store CO2 has been “distrously damaged” with 95 percent of protected areas designed for 100-year wildfires gone in less than a decade, a new study warns.
A peer-reviewed paper, published by researchers from the non-profit CarbonPlan on Friday in the peer-reviewed journal. Frontiers in Forests and Global Change, raises serious and potentially existential concerns about the appropriateness of carbon offset programs, particularly those that pay landowners to maintain forests in return for carbon harvesting. The idea behind these programs is that by paying people or companies to protect the trees that are cut down, carbon is stored in the trees, offsetting the amount of CO2 emissions that would have otherwise been fixed elsewhere.
It sounds simple, but in reality, programs related to forestry it is very difficult to give, incorporating a lot of deep math to make sure the calculations are accurate. It requires loans to go to forests that would otherwise have been cut down, which is not always the case. For example, The California program paid off The Massachusetts Audubon Society $6 million to keep trees from being cut down on their property, something the conservation group probably wouldn’t have done in the first place.
Many of the factors that cause tree failure are very difficult for borrowers—trees die for other reasons, such as fire, disease, drought, or pests. To protect against these limitations, the California offset program has a so-called buffer account of loans to which a percentage of each purchase goes. This article, according to the California Air Resources Board (CARB) which oversees the project, “serves as an insurance policy to cover the costs of unexpected changes (for example, the loss of carbon dioxide due to wildfires, disease, or insect outbreaks).
But the new study argues that the buffer account is not large enough to cause the wildfires and disease that have affected trees in the offset program. In general, projects are required to allocate between two and four percent of the carbon credits purchased for wildfire risks in a buffer account, or less if it is engaged in wildfire management. When a wildfire occurs in a designated forest, the creditor has two years to report it and CARB will withdraw the money from the buffer account.
As of 2017, CARB has “retired” — to use a technical term —1.1 million loans from about 31 million, due to “accidental changes,” the official way of saying that a forest that was supposed to last another 100 years and be part of the climate solution was instead burned, releasing its CO2 into the atmosphere. About 20 percent of the 31 million (6.2 million) loans are earmarked for wildfire risks, while the rest are for diseases, pests, or lack of funds and other financial risks from the forest managers themselves.
But the researchers, using data from four recent fires involving carbon sequestered forests for which CARB has yet to deduct any funds, say the remaining $5 million in wildfire risk is dangerous. Specifically, he estimates 95 percent of the loans, which were supposed to be 100 years old, have already expired.
Worryingly, researchers say the deforestation program is in serious jeopardy even assuming no more wildfires (although researchers expect wildfires to increase in frequency and intensity due to climate change). This is because one type of disease can disappear. sudden death oakit could be large enough to “spend all the money put aside for diseases and pathogens in 100 years,” the study says.
“We knew the fire was big—anyone who breathes air or watches the news knows that,” one of the investigators, Danny Cullenward, told Motherboard via email. “We were surprised to find that the same disease can have the same effect, even if it takes a long time.”
A CARB spokesperson told Motherboard that the buffer is being developed and used as “evidence that it is a smart part of our program.” The spokesperson added that CARB “developed a risk assessment that confirms the effectiveness of the buffer account based on what we know at the time we adopted the Protocol” and that it “will review all the science and new information as we proceed with our next policy update.” The protocol has been updated twice since the program was launched but the spokesperson said there is “no time frame to share” when further changes may be made.
CARB is already argued that as long as the program grows over time, future loans will create unexpected deficits, although Cullenward says that this only works if the risk levels decrease over time. In fact, research points to the exact opposite, that forests are at greater risk of wildfires and disease in the coming decades. He compared this process to “putting old debt on a new credit card.”
The result of all this, Cullenward said, is that the buffer account is insurance, and “you know you have a problem when the coming debts are bigger than you planned; you don’t expect the insurance company to go bankrupt before you start worrying about the protection it provides.”
This study answers serious questions not only about CARB CO2 sequestration projects, but all the forests to store air. “At the end of the day, I think it’s a mistake to rely on forest carbon storage to ensure or ‘offset’ CO2 emissions,” Cullenward said. “Forests and fossils cannot be compared to climate, and no amount of advanced mathematics can change that.”